Remember Limbo? The 2010 puzzle platform game created by the Danish studio Playdead? It was an incredible, and incredibly atmospheric, game which helped contribute to the re-emergence of a classic genre originally made popular by Eric Chahi's Another World. Monochroma is one of those games. The guys at Nowhere Studios certainly haven't hidden the fact that Limbo was a huge inspiration for their game. Indeed, at its core, Monochroma aspires to become one of those classics but some unfortunate stumbling blocks sour what could have been a memorable experience. Update: official gameplay video added.
Presented as a bold monochromatic nightmare with a dash of red, Monochroma wastes no time in setting the stage for its dark adventure. It all begins when your kid brother is injured just a few minutes into the game forcing you, the player, to hoist him up on your back and trudge forward into the unknown. Traipsing across rain soaked corn fields the two boys slowly make their way into what becomes an industrial nightmare. With nary a word spoken, Monochroma tells the tale of these two boys as they unwittingly uncover the dark secrets buried within a massive Walmart-esque corporation. There's an interesting, unsettling tale here, one which fits beautifully with the visual style, but the real villain of this story is the actual gameplay.
A Boy and his Blob
For the most part, puzzles revolve around your immobile little sibling. While your character remains shockingly mobile with his brother in tow (climbing ropes, ladders, and making huge jumps even), he's still slowed down just enough to make certain obstacles impassable. The problem, of course, is that he is afraid of the dark preventing the player from simply dropping him where they please to take care of business. What this means is that you'll be looking for very specific brightly lit areas to drop him while you go off and solve the puzzle. It all feels a bit contrived at times, with lit spots appearing only when a puzzle is awaiting to be solved, but the puzzles still present some interesting challenges at times.
Your little brother is also completely immobile and unable to communicate in any way. He could just as easily be a rock or a backpack which, unfortunately, dulls some of the emotional appeal the team was clearly striving for. It's hard to feel any connection to something that doesn't actually do or say anything. There's also a collection of robots which play a limited but interesting role both in the story and gameplay. Despite their limited screen time, their animations actually give them a bit more personality than your sibling and their connection to the narrative further cements this. Gameplay wise, by standing on top of one of these metallic beings the player is granted command allowing for horizontal and vertical motion making it possible to cross dangerous materials or reach upper ledges.
Perhaps more than any other genre, a platformer lives and dies by the quality of its mechanics; if the simple act of running and jumping doesn't work properly or feels unsatisfactory the entire game is compromised. Monochroma unfortunately, falls dangerously close to this side of the spectrum. Movement is rigid and poorly animated, jumps are floaty and awkward, and collision detection can prove incredibly frustrating at times. Making simple jumps sometimes becomes a matter of luck rather than skill. Nothing is worse than working all the way through a difficult room only to fail as the very end because your character failed to grab a ledge or was caught on the scenery. You simply cannot count on any consistency here and it quickly becomes frustrating. Puzzles are often obvious at first glance but the slow animations and quirky controls create the wrong sort of challenge.
It's when physics become the focal point of a puzzle that things become more troublesome. Take for instance a room filling up with water. At the bottom lies a crate and above a number of alternating overhanging ledges. As the room begins to flood you must jump on that crate and, at the next ledge, jump off and pull that crate across the screen in order to clear the ledge above that. It sounds simple enough and, really, the solution very much is. The physics, however, with their lack of friction and predictability transform this room into a control throwing nightmare. Dying requires you to run through the whole thing again which also happens to involve a lot of waiting. If we were to pull out the ol' Jank-o-meter for Monochroma we suspect it would fall closer to the likes of a busted Russian strategy game than a Nintendo platformer. It's not a polished game and it really hurts. Good ideas are thwarted by poor control at every turn. This feels like a game still early in development rather than a finished product. Even camera motion feels choppy operating at rate fixed rate slower than the actual frame-rate.
That's the real shame here. It's clear that the team was working within a limited budget but you can really feel the passion that went into creating this game. One can easily envision what they were aiming for and, in many ways, they were so close. The art design is often excellent and inspired, despite the similarities with Limbo. While the early areas can fall a bit short, the urban landscape presented later in the game feel inspired and recall the imagery one might associate with something akin to The City of Lost Children. If only playing through these sequences were more enjoyable. With some heavy tweaking and improvements Monochroma could morph into a memorable game but, as it stands, it's simply more frustrating than anything else. As much as it would like to be, Monochroma is not the next Limbo.